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The American people were mis-sold the General Petraeus scandal

It wasn't about security. It was about sex.

David Petraeus, pre-resignation.
David Petraeus, pre-resignation. Photograph: Getty Images

When the CIA director and former chief of American operations in Afghanistan resigned after admitting an affair with his hagiographer, a serious disconnect could be seen in the US coverage between the reasons the media wanted us to believe they found this scandal fascinating – security issues, personal privacy issues, unprecedented access issues, the hint of espionage and the smell of treason – and the reasons the media actually found this scandal fascinating: Broadwell's looks, the age difference between the two, the narrative of a powerful man brought low by his libido, and the stoicism of the betrayed spouses.

At the height of the story the internet rang with national security implications and thrilling spy narratives, hacked emails and clandestine communications. “If girlfriend was trying to access Petraeus email & FBI investigating, there's possibility she could be charged w espionage. Honey trap?”, the Telegraph's former Washington bureau chief, Toby Harnden, tweeted after the story broke. But now that the dust has settled, America has to come to terms with a difficult fact: this wasn't about security. It was about sex.

Headlines promising lines of enquiry like CNN's “is Petraeus' pillow-talk a security threat?” have so far borne scant fruit because everyone already knows the answer, which is: yes, but really no greater than background levels. A public servant is either professionally trustworthy or not, and an affair rarely changes this – the possibility of blackmail notwithstanding. The greatest American security breaches in recent history have been ideological leaks, not honey-traps. Broadwell was writing a book about Petraeus, not serially seducing generals for the KGB.

Maybe we can fall back on the old question: if someone can't handle themselves honestly in private life, how can they be expected to comport themselves straightforwardly in public life? But public servants often have chequered sex lives, and there isn't a convincing correlation between sleeping around and inability to work. In the private sector few are fired just for having an affair, but politicians and people like Petraeus are held to different moral standards.

America hasn't always been this prudish. Kennedy had a famously adventurous sex life, and FDR maintained a number of mistresses. But now the onus is much more on the media to sell: this is the era of News as Entertainment.

The age of sex scandal in the US seemingly started with Gary Hart, a Colorado Senator running for President in 1988 who made the mistake of laying a challenge for the press. “Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me – go ahead.” The papers took his challenge and Hart was snapped within two days with a model called Donna Rice on a friend's boat, unfortunately named “Monkey Business”.

In Britain the tabloid press is unapologetic about printing saucy gossip for it's own sake, which means many politicians – Boris Johnson, for example – can wriggle free of being caught 'in flagrante' simply by saying “yes, so what?” Sex always sells, but a scandal doesn't necessarily kill a political career in Britain unless there hubris or hypocrisy are also involved.

But Clinton, who famously cheated on his wife in the Oval Office – a sin of sins in the holy of holies – was nearly impeached for it, a punishment previously reserved for Nixon for the Watergate cover-up: a genuine scandal of political misconduct. But despite a divorce rate of 50% or higher, today's American public, especially those parts dominated by a Christian value-set, demand personal perfection from politicians. The media industry, courting their audience share, goes along for the ride.

(An unpleasant side-note is that the blame has fallen much more on Paula Broadwell than on Petraeus. He has come out of this mess looking like someone with a forgiveable weakness for women that many seem to expect of powerful men. It is Broadwell who has been made the villain; a temptress who betrayed her family for personal gain; while his wife Holly Petraeus, in a breathtaking display of callousness, has been condemned in the more unsavoury corners of Twitter for being too old and too unattractive to hold on to her husband.

Even the LA Times, struggling to make sense of this issue, ran a schizophrenic column by Megan Baum entitled “The Frump Factor and Holly Petraeus” which bemoans the sexism of Holly Petraeus's treatment with one breath and describes her as “an unlikely partner for a staggeringly accomplished man” with the next.)

The underlying motive to sell more papers and chase higher ratings means that the profitable story isn't one in the public interest, but one that interests the public. This is so obvious in Britain that it goes without saying; but the national media in the US, struggling with vast audiences that encompass both rising religious prudishness and rising popular prurience, is less used to this problem.

Thus, in America, sex in and of itself has become an ever-bigger deal, but networks and newspapers must now sell sex as a security scandal because while sex always sells, they have to be more careful about being seen to sell it. That's why the Petraeus scandal was so mis-sold.